Michigan is in a tough spot. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out spring football U-M behind the 8-ball when it comes to find out who should start at quarterback.
Eight programs in the Big Ten have a starter heading into 2020. Ohio State has Justin Fields, Minnesota has Tanner Morgan, Penn State has Sean Clifford, Nebraska has Adrian Martinez, Indiana has Michael Penix Jr., Maryland very likely has Josh Jackson, Illinois has Brandon Peters and Iowa will replace Nate Stanley with Spencer Petras.
That means that six programs are in the same boat as Michigan. Here's how those battles rank even though no one knows who will be under center just yet.
1. Wisconsin — Jack Coan vs. Graham Mertz
Wisconsin has to be in the best shape when it comes to its quarterback battle because it actually has a returning starter in Coan coming back. The issue for the Badgers is that highly touted Mertz is breathing down Coan's neck as he embarks on his redshirt freshman campaign.
Coan wasn't exactly a big play waiting to happen last year for the Badgers but he was efficient and took care of the ball, which helped Wisconsin go 10-4 in 2019. He went 236 of 339 (69.6%) for 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns against just five interceptions. Those aren't Heisman numbers by any stretch of the imagination but he was exactly what Wisconsin needed with Jonathan Taylor in the backfield — solid.
There's probably more upside with the more talented Mertz, but he's young and inexperienced. The former four star and No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the country is heading into year two as a Badger and has fans excited. Is he as careful with the ball and as knowledgable as Coan? Perhaps not yet, but everyone in Madison thinks his time is coming. Could it happen in 2020? We shall see.
2. Michigan — Dylan McCaffrey vs. Joe Milton
We've outlined Michigan's quarterback battle many times here at Wolverine Digest so we probably don't need another deep dive in terms of their numbers or what they've done.
With that said, McCaffrey and Milton are both extremely talented. They actually might be No. 1 and No. 2 on this list in terms of being the most naturally gifted players. Mertz would challenge that, as would former five star Hunter Johnson, but McCaffrey and Milton have it all. They're both big at 6-5 and more than 220 pounds, can really run and have strong arms; Milton might have the strongest arm in the entire country. Because of that, the potential is there, but the experience and accuracy is not.
Will they figure it out in 2020 and lead Michigan's offense to heights that we haven't seen under Jim Harbaugh? I actually think it's quite possible but we probably won't even get a hint about it until Sept. 5.
3. Northwestern — Peyton Ramsey vs. Hunter Johnson vs. Aidan Smith
Northwestern is coming off an abysmal 3-9 season and is still looking for answers at quarterback after losing four-star starter Clayton Thorson in 2018. The Cats tried Aidan Smith and Hunter Johnson last year but both struggled mightily to the tune of 13 interceptions and just four touchdowns between the two of them. That probably means that former Indiana Hoosier starter and graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey will be the guy in 2020, but he isn't going to be handed the job.
Ramsey totaled 6,851 passing yards, the fourth-most in Indiana program history, during his three years as a Hoosier, and he also ranks fourth among team leaders in career total offense with 7,411 yards. He's thrown 42 touchdowns against 23 picks and just looks like the best option on paper and on film.
Pat Fitzgerald is a good coach coming off a bad year. He's a tireless worker and will want to right the wrongs that led to nine losses last season. Since a lot of those wrongs belonged to Smith and Johnson, I expect Ramsey to win this job and be better than both.
4. Purdue — Jack Plummer vs. Aidan O'Connell
Elijah Sindelar played in just five games over the last two years for Purdue due to injuries, which lead to him leaving the program ahead of the 2020 season. Because of that, Plummer stepped in and took over as the starter — then he went down with a broken leg. O'Connell then slid into the lineup and finished out the season. Both obviously played for the Boilermakers last year, but neither were outstanding, which leads to this year's battle.
Plummer finished the season 144 of 241 (59.8%) for 1,603 yards and 11 touchdowns against eight interceptions. O'Connell went 103 of 164 (62.8%) for 1,101 yards with eight touchdowns and four picks. Neither choice seems like a home run at this time but getting Rondale Moore back is going to help whoever wins the job. This is one of the more contested quarterback battles in the conference.
5. Michigan State — Rocky Lombardi vs. Theo Day vs. Payton Thorne
The Spartans have another three-way battle on their hands and no one seems to know who will emerge as the starter.
Lombardi has played the most, but isn't considered the odds-on favorite to win the job. Last year he played in eight games but only threw the ball 21 times. He completed seven of those attempts for 74 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Day played in just two games and went 2 of 3 in mop-up duty, and Thorne redshirted in 2019.
It seems like Michigan State fans and media members have seen enough of Lombardi, but the other two options are just so inexperienced. The entire scenario is obviously not the best situation for first-year coach Mel Tucker, but that's why three or four wins is a very real possibility for the Spartans in 2020.
6. Rutgers — Artur Sitkowski vs. Johnny Langan
Does it really matter?
Okay, that's a bit harsh but the quarterback situation at Rutgers has been bad over the last few years. Sitkowski was the starter in 2018 but he threw the ball to the other team 18 times that year with only four touchdowns. In 2019, Sitkowski and Langan both played but again, defenders simply got their hands on too many throws.
Sitkowski threw one touchdown pass and two interceptions, while Langan threw four touchdown passes and nine picks.
Sitkowski actually entered the transfer portal after last year but has decided to stick it out with Greg Schiano back at the helm. The Scarlet Knights are going to be bad again in 2020 regardless of who the quarterback is.